What You Need to Know About Seitan, The Latest Plant-Based Protein Craze
Plus, Lauren Toyota's secret to making the perfect seitan.
The latest online plant-based food trend is made of just two ingredients: flour and water. Over the last few weeks, creators on TikTok have been drawing attention to this meat-substitute, called seitan. The video tutorials are, at least in my opinion, a little bewildering. In one, George Lee, a popular 19-year-old Taiwanese vegan chef, takes flour, mixes in water, kneads the dough, and then… washes it? The result is stretchy ball of gluten which Lee steams to make something that at least looks like meat. Other recipes include heavy seasoning, deep frying or pan frying to achieve a meat-like consistency and flavour.
While seitan has been around for centuries in Chinese and Japanese cuisine, it’s recently been given a popularity boost thanks to vegan creators like Lee and the rise of plant-based eating (according to a Dalhousie University study, about 2.3 million Canadians identified as vegetarian in 2018, up from just 900,000 fifteen years ago).
But what is seitan? And can you really make it with just flour and water? Here’s what you need to know.
What is seitan?
Pronounced “say-tan” (not “Satan”), seitan is basically pure gluten. “Seitan is wheat gluten, the protein aspect of wheat, with all the carbohydrates or flour that’s been washed out of it,” says Lauren Toyota, a vegan chef, blogger, YouTuber and author of the new cookbook Hot for Food All Day. “It’s used to make mock meat, and comes from the traditional Buddhist diets, where they don’t eat animal products.”
While it might be easy to think of fake meat as a contemporary thing (especially as products like Beyond Burgers and JUST Egg flood the market), East Asian Buddhists have been making seitan for centuries—with some of the earliest records dating back the 6th century in China. Since Indian missionaries brought Buddhism to this part of Asia sometime between 206 BCE to 220 CE, vegetarianism, one of the core tenants of Buddhism, also stuck around. Chinese Buddhists, not wanting to break tradition when meat-eating visitors came to their monastery, replaced the meat in traditional dishes with tofu or gluten. Thus, seitan was born. In fact, this is how I first encountered seitan: as a kid, my family and I frequented a Buddhist temple in Thornhill, Ont. where my mom would buy seitan and soy-based goodies (like mock duck, my absolute favourite) for us to eat at home.
(Related: 8 Tofu Health Benefits You Should Know)
How do you make seitan at home? Can you really just use flour and water?
Seitan is usually made out of just water, flour and seasonings to approximate the taste of meat. TikTokers have been making it with all-purpose flour and water, resting it so the gluten forms in the dough and then rinsing it in water to get rid of the flour, leaving behind just the strands of gluten. I tried this method at home using a video recipe from TikTok-er futurelettuce, whose original shredded seitan “chicken” made the wheat meat go viral. I was underwhelmed. While my finished seitan tasted fine (I seasoned with salt, pepper, thyme, oregano and chicken bouillon to try to recreate chicken), the texture was a little off— it was very bouncy and lacked the fibrous texture that meat usually has.
Toyota suggests using vital wheat gluten or gluten flour, which is a type of flour that is gluten-heavy and has less carbs in it (meaning you can make seitan without needing to wash it). First, she mixes the vital wheat gluten with water to form a dough. Then, she rolls it into a log, wraps it in foil and then bakes it for 90 minutes. “So, what’s happening with the foil is that it’s steaming and baking the seitan at the same time,” she says. “I let that fully cool overnight, which cures it and retightens those gluten strands so you get what I call a tight spring, but it’s still dense. Then you can shave it on a mandolin or meat slicer to get thin slices like deli meats.”
Of course, because seitan is just flour and water, seasoning is of the utmost importance. For Toyota’s vegan Cubano sandwich, which uses seitan as the meat substitute, she uses spices like garlic powder, onion powder, dried thyme and oregano, ground mustard and beef flavoured stock. “You could even increase the amount of seasoning because seitan is so bland on its own,” she says.
How can you use seitan?
Anywhere you’d use meat, you can use seitan. At restaurants, seitan is used to imitate everything from duck to shrimp. On TikTok, chefs have been turning seitan into fried chicken sandwiches and shredded chicken. Meanwhile, Toyota’s favourite way to prepare seitan is as a substitute for beef or pork. “It doesn’t need to get super specific, these differences between pork and beef,” she says. “In actuality, it’s just a chewy, textural thing.”
Is seitan good for you?
Seitan is high in protein and low in saturated fats, making it a great substitute for meat in a plant-based diet. That being said, replacing all your meat with seitan won’t meet your body’s protein needs— if you’re going totally plant-based, don’t forget to supplement with other protein sources like grains, beans and nuts.
And, of course, for those who have a gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease, it’s best to steer clear from seitan since it’s essentially pure gluten. But, unless you’re allergic to gluten, it’s perfectly healthy to consume. (The recent trend of going gluten-free for health is mostly unfounded.)
If you do feel sick after eating store-bought seitan (and you aren’t allergic to gluten), you might be reacting to some of the other ingredients found in the product. “If it’s prepacked, we’re talking about excess levels of sodium or other flavor enhancers or preservatives,” says Toyota. “It might even be a soy sensitivity. Sometimes seitan is mixed with soy and tofu, but it doesn’t need to be—the original seitan is just pure gluten with seasonings.” In that case, it might be best for you to try making it at home.
I want to try seitan!
Great! There are tons of ways to try seitan. You can hunt it down at a grocery store and cook it at home by following the instructions on the package. There’s also no shortage of vegan and vegetarian restaurants that use seitan in its “meat” dishes.
If you want to go the more DIY route, you could try doing the washed flour method popular on TikTok. But, if you’re looking for something a step up (and you don’t want to wash your dough over and over again), try Toyota’s vegan Cubano sandwich which uses her “saved by seitan” recipe to recreate the thin slices of pork you’d usually find in this comfort food.
Now that you know all about seitan, here are 24 plant-based recipes to make for dinner in quarantine and beyond.